‘My emotions ranged
from total numbness to relief’

A walk to a petrol station seemed to lead to the only way out for Dominic Barrett after a life of homelessness and mental health concerns. But that was only the first horrific part of a longer journey

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I grew up on a small council estate in South Yorkshire, where I lived until my early teens with both parents, two sisters and a brother, until my overbearing mother threw me out. My crime was allegedly being an uncontrollable tearaway.

There is no easy fix but extra funding and better pay for nurses and support staff are a start

I had no other option: I went to live in accommodation for vulnerable teens who were homeless. The routine was the same: out at nine in the morning, back at 12 for lunch, out again, then back at 4pm for tea and bed down for the night. The place aimed to develop essential life skills and improve young people’s confidence. It failed in my case spectacularly, because one cold night, in my wisdom, I decided to climb out of an upper floor window and make a run for it.

Freedom, I thought. I could not hack the same old routine and restrictions – ironic as in my mid-twenties I went on to join the British Army, full of routine and restrictions. Another one of life’s regrets. The first was getting into a toxic relationship and subsequently getting married.

I was accustomed to my own company, as I enjoy the isolation. I left school at 16 with no qualifications, so I did not go on to further education like many of my peers. If I did stand out at school it was for the wrong reason. I was the class clown.

All my life I have been a drifter, not settling anywhere for long. I have lived up and down the UK, mainly sofa surfing or in homeless shelters. One day I went into a Tesco supermarket and bought what I thought was a pizza. When I got it back to my accommodation at the time, I found it was a pizza base and not a pizza, so I used it as bread to dip in my soup.

I would go anywhere that anyone would have me. I did not live, I existed. On some occasions, I never knew where my next meal was coming from. On several occasions, I sat in the cold park at night thinking about what it all was for. Suicide was my only option. I thought society would be better off without a screw-up like me.

I can remember the day when I joined the British Army. I felt so proud, getting through the training and then going home to tell my family. But I got the impression they were not happy. I was not sure if it was the thought of me going off to war and dying or me doing something with my life.

My first posting was to Cyprus as a UN peacekeeper. Initially I enjoyed the posting. The women, alcohol and the nights off were great. But one night changed my life forever. There was an incident between me, a Greek soldier and a loaded rifle. I never told anyone about it and just got on with my job. This would turn out to be the biggest mistake of my very short military career. Instead of talking about it and asking for help, I did what I did best and bottled it up.

After that, my military career went downhill, as did my relationships with my loved ones and my friends. I started to get flashbacks and a racing heart every time I went on duty. When I left Cyprus with the army I thought I could get on with my life and put the incident behind me. How wrong was I?

I met my wife at the time. I realise now I was not in the right frame of mind to get into any kind of relationship, certainly not a marriage. I never told my wife about the incident and this affected my marriage. It was toxic. I married her because I thought I loved her, she married me to get out of her troubled life. I got into a serious altercation and got kicked out of the army. We divorced shortly after.

My mental health has suffered for more than 20 years and my last hospital admission was the most distressing to date, not only for me but for my loved ones. My life was on a dangerous downward spiral. You can be stood in a crowd of people but still feel socially isolated. Loneliness is not the same as being alone. Social isolation does not discriminate and can affect anyone of us. We all have a different way of coping with change – everyone’s struggles are different.

I sat nervously, perched on my hospital bed, tears rolling down my face. There is only so much a person can take in this life. We all have that breaking point. Mine was when the emotional and psychological problems that I expertly suppressed over the years came to the surface with a vengeance. I did not have the tools or understanding to deal with them. I was constantly on edge and paranoid. I was an emotional time bomb waiting to explode.

Rather than hurting the ones I cared for, I decided to take my own life. Many people think that suicide is the coward’s way out and an easy decision to come to, but it is a soul-destroying decision to have to come to make. After painful deliberation, I plucked up the remainder of the courage that I had left, tears still rolling down my cheeks. I waited for a few minutes. My watch seemed to have stopped or perhaps that was my perception at the time. My head was spinning; my emotions were all over the place. All I wanted was someone to take me by the hand and tell me everything was going to be okay, to comfort me, but from painful experiences of my past, I knew this was not coming.

I went to the nurses’ station to ask the nurse in charge if I could have some unescorted leave to go to the shop. I was afraid that the nurse would see my distress and deny me the leave. The walk to the petrol station was just over a mile and a half away.

My emotions ranged from total numbness to relief. I knew that my pain would soon be over. Ironically, I nearly got run over twice. Why did I not just turn back and go ask for help from the medics at the hospital?

I finally arrived at the petrol station. My heart was pounding. The first thing I noticed was a kind little old lady behind the counter. However, by the time she realised what was about to happen, it was too late.

The innocent lady showed tremendous bravery on that distressing night. One can only hope that one day she can find it in her heart to forgive me for my actions. If it was not for that polite lady and the professionalism of the emergency workers, I and half the village of Whiston would have exploded into a fireball.

I owe a special debt of gratitude to the very brave police officer whose actions saved countless lives that night. The officer managed to talk me down and I was swiftly taken by ambulance to the nearest mental health assessment unit – at the same hospital I had just come from. The same officer stayed by my side and never left me, constantly reassuring me and telling me I was going to a place of safety.

I was sectioned under the Mental Health Act. I spent seven months in the psychiatric intensive care unit so staff could keep me safe before being transferred to a specialist hospital for treatment.

I was given schema therapy. All the negative emotions and memories I had suppressed over the years came to the surface. They hit me like a brick but I felt I was in a safe environment to process them. Over the years, I have encountered numerous types of therapies but nothing like schema therapy, which is for people who are not responsive to first-line approaches. I realised I needed this type of therapy. At times I did not have the energy to get out of the hospital bed. The team had the skills, experience and patience to listen to me and help me work through my many problems. Throughout our lives we all will experience some form of negative thinking and our emotions will play an important part in this. My emotions were offline and this was having a serious impact on my life. Through schema therapy they came back online. Working through difficult emotions in a safe and comfortable environment is essential.

The world we now live in has dramatically changed. We have a new normal to adjust to and connecting with our family, friends and colleagues is more important than ever. It is a difficult time that is affecting everyone from all walks of society. For someone who already suffers from low mood, this can exacerbate their situation and can lead to more severe mental health problems. Reaching out and letting people know you care and that you are in this together can potentially save a life.

Socially isolated people are more likely to suffer from depression and 3.4 times more likely to experience depression, 1.9 times more likely to develop dementia in the following 15 years and two to three times more likely to be physically inactive, which in turn can increase the chances of diabetes, stroke and coronary heart disease.

There is no easy fix but extra funding from the government and better pay for nurses and support staff are a start. I understand that in the course of a pandemic, difficult and complex decisions have had to be made in regard to the prioritisation of mental health resources, to avoid services becoming overwhelmed. But the mental health system pre-pandemic was poorly prepared for such a challenge, through insufficient funding, significant case backlog, ageing estate facilities and poor digital preparedness. There has been a monumental effort by all working in mental health during Covid.

Now at the tender age of 48, I am working towards my BA criminology and law degreee and I am also studying for a foundation certificate in journalism. Now I am a more focused individual with clear aspirations, who aims to meet my full potential and take on new challenges. Even though I never learned how to become a child in the normal sense, I am hoping to teach others that it is OK to talk about their mental health. This is where I get my strength and motivation from.

Photo: Lee Brown

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